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The dreaded wall of explanation

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Feo Takahari, Jun 20, 2014.

  1. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    I'm currently writing a scene in a fanfic where the villain invites the protagonist into her house and converses with her. After a bit of an argument, the protagonist agrees to sit down and listen to what the villain has to say. The villain outlines her beliefs and motivations, with occasional protests from the protagonist, and then offers to protect the protagonist if she renounces her ethnic identity.

    In other words, it's a massive wall of explanation.

    I'm not really sure how to spice it up, since there's not much for them to do right now besides talk. I'm trying to get some energy out of the protagonist's reactions--she's appalled by what the villain is saying--but I'm not sure what else to do with it. How do you break this sort of wall?
     
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    There's a few different approaches.

    1 - The character could have a more subtle or unexpected reaction, like buying into it at first, or pretending to before mocking her. Or maybe the MC uses the time to ignore the argument and study the person making it, so that it would take a turn when the MC responds with a set of conclusions she's made about the villain. That is, you build tension by taking the MC's response through an arc that builds up to a payoff.

    2 - Similarly, you can take the reader's response to the Villain through an arc. I saw something in a video about that, but I think a good example is from the original Dracula. Dracula invites the character to a room, and talks all about the history of people who owned the castle, and somewhere in the conversation you as a reader realize that Dracula is talking about himself. It's a boring wall of text of the worst kind, a fake history lesson, but it's got that potential to feel horrible and frightening. You can take the villain's rationale through a similar progression, so that the reader becomes frighteningly aware of where she's taking the argument before she actually gets there.

    3 - You take an arc through the action. They're talking about it while they break out into a duel or try to poison each other's tea or something. I almost want to call it the "easy way out," in this case, because it sounds like it risks being forced. There should be enough potential in the conversation itself that you don't want to detract from.
     
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  3. Spider

    Spider Sage

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    In The Lies of Locke Lamora, there's one section where the dialogue is broken by glimpses of a gladiatorial match that the characters are watching. You could always do something similar; while your characters may be doing nothing but talking, there could be something happening outside the window that provides relief from the wall of explanation. The break could be as simple as a cat hunting and killing a rabbit. The climax or outcome of this side event could even represent/mirror the climax or outcome of the conversation.
     
  4. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    I have to deal with this fairly often. Unless I check myself, I'm quite capable of putting in a page or more of explanation.

    Happened most recently with the 'Jobe' story: one of the villain's had a tale to tell - and it had to be told, not showed. Said tale was central to the villain's motivations and a key as to what was going on. (A biased 'big reveal'). I went over that piece again and again, finally making it a sort of short, declarative sermon, with lots of dramatic gestures and exclamation points. The sermon bit worked (I hope) because the villain is a priest, and sermonizing is one of the things priests do.
     
  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I think Spider is on the right track about this. Frame the conversation within the context of something happening around them OR them doing something sort of interesting.

    In your instance you can have the villain be doing something around the house, something mundane like cleaning or cooking or whatever as they talk. You can use what they're doing to reveal character and relationships. Maybe the villain is rebuilding the engine in a '55 Chevy or they're make a mean spot of tea. These things reveal bits of background for who the villain is without spelling it out. It's shown to the reader.

    How the villain and main character interact during the conversation and in this situation can also say so much about their relationship. If the villain is rebuilding that engine and as they're working they subtly manipulate the main character with their words into handing them tools and parts, it says something about who's the boss and who's the subordinate.

    Or if the main character is wise cracking about how the villain doesn't know crap about cars, it says something else about their relationship.

    And finally, if they find some sort of common ground in terms of a working relationship while they both repair that Chevy, it says another thing.
     
  6. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Hmm . . . The villain's a flower vendor, and she's abusing other people's racism for personal benefit, but she believes that races don't actually exist, so having her weeding would send the wrong message. Maybe I can do something with tea . . .
     
  7. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    Lots of great ideas.

    Another is to parse what the villain is saying about her beliefs. Break the revelation process down to go through several stages that, compared to what the heroine believes about her, make her seem like she wants one thing-- no, maybe she'll let that one go but she's really after this-- whoa, it's all about that? This works best if each stage is tied to particular people or other stakes that they risk, or at least plans that will or won't have a chance if that's what the villain's doing. Ending it with that Choice for the heroine certainly counts as that.
     
  8. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Hmmm... if they're a flower vendor, maybe you could have her taking care of flowers around her house. Maybe she could throw in a few anecdotes about how there is truly only one species of flower and through her subtle manipulations she creates the many varieties she sells, but at the heart of it all, it's still one species. Stuff like that.
     
  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Or they could be cultivated for different purposes. Let's say maybe the Plenitulia can either be used to medicinally to cure simple ailments, or if treated differently would be a powerful halucinogenic that fetches a high price on the black market. Naturally you're only allowed to use it for medicine, but the antagonist is setting the flower up to produce "bad drugs" instead of "good medicine".
     
  10. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    Doing something else while the exposition goes on (as suggested by spider) is a good way of framing it.

    I've used games (such as a game of cards or a board game like chess) in the past to frame encounters between antagonists.
    Either to allow specific explanation - or for a character to reveal accidentally part of their nature (such as ruthlessness or intelligence).

    It's similar in some ways to Ingmar Bergman's 'The seventh seal' where a knight and death play a game of chess together (ripped off shamelessly in Bill and Ted's bogus journey with death playing Bill and Ted at battleships and Twister).

    If you've watched the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones (and especially if you compare it with the books) you'll see this sort of thing in action constantly in the way some scenes are constructed: E.g.

    Tywin butchering a carcass as he explains his plans. - each knife thrust reinforcing how badass he is.
    A joust that is mere backdrop to the machinations and exposition of plot reveals on the royal stand.
    Tywn explaining what is happening in the battles with the king in the north to his bannermen while unbeknownst to him he's served wine by the sister of man he's fighting.

    These are special scenes that the producers constructed that weren't in the original books (indeed some characters never met at all such as Tywin and Arya) but they were created to condense and make clearer to the viewer whole chapters of the original books - in doing this the producers succeeded superbly at both simplifying GRRM's sprawling original.

    They have to do it because even though its a very expensive TV series they can't possibly put all of it onscreen (especially battles) so events sometimes have to be dealt with as explanation. But they handle it superbly - and do push out the boat occasional. (Though sometimes it's a bit like 'You 10 come with me - you 2000 hide over that hill).

    I love GRRM's books - but he really should have had an editor (in particular his later ones).
     
  11. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Long sessions of explanatory dialogue are not boring just because they are long sessions of explanatory dialogue. There is nothing inherently boring about a long session of explanatory dialogue.

    For example, the Chapter Shadows of the Past in LOTR is such a one and there is nothing boring about it. It draws you in and hooks you into a story that is thousands of years long. It gives you the first real sense of the depth of the world and the story. It changed my life forever, because it was that chapter that made me a die hard fantasy lover. The Council of Elrond is another chapter full of expository dialogue, but I've never heard a fan of the books complain about it. What you learn in that chapter opens your eyes to the scope of the story, as such it's one of the foundational scenes of the whole thing. Lots of people complain about Tolkien's landscape description, but I've never heard anyone seriously complain about his backstory infodumps. This is because the information being conveyed is so darn fascinating.

    Another example, in the scifi TV show Babylon 5 there are some scenes where the character Delenn, who is one of the only people who know what's going on, has to explain a big chunk of backstory to the other characters. The writer of B%, J. Michael Straczinski, dreaded these scenes because on of the cardinal rules of script writing is to avoid the "talking head" scene. However, because the history that Delenn explains is interesting and also because Delenn is a character who commands respect and is just downright pleasant to listen to, the scenes come across just fine. They aren't boring. They are scenes of important revelation.

    So the key, when you have to have a character explain something at length, is basically the thing being explained has to be interesting and it helps if its being explained by a character who the reader is invested in and/or fascinated by. This is all on the writer. You simply have to have the skill to present your narrative in an interesting way.
     
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  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Hahhaa... Maybe it's just me being a little drowsy, but when I read this, it gave me the giggles for like ten minutes.
     
  13. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Spoilers for those who haven't read the webcomic Order of the Stick (I recommend it), but here's a great example of the villain's exposition being done well, and the reader's response arcing into something akin to horror. In it, General Tarquin explains why he can't lose. There's action happening in the comics around it, for sure, but nothing else is happening in just this strip - the exposition stands alone pretty well.
     
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  14. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    A good point. Though it takes some doing to come up with a dialog twist as good as Tarquin's here-- he's got the universe pegged. :bounce:
     
  15. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    It looks like I'll revise backwards as well as forwards. In previous chapters, this villain has said some really vile things. I think I'll shift those off to another character, and have the villain be less hateful, to pay that forward while she's explaining her ideas. She'll be totally rational and reasonable while arguing that the moral of the canon series, the founding values of their nation, and the principle the protagonist is literally a living representative of are all unreasonable and futile. By tying it into canonical events, I think I can create an effect similar to Tarquin's speech.
     
  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Definitely, it's a top-tier example. But you don't have to match it. Getting even a fraction of the effect can make a boring dialogue worthwhile.
     
  17. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Also, totally off-topic, but Tarquin's little speech reminded me of something from Goblins: Life Through Their Eyes. It's long, so I'll spoiler it:

    Dellyn: Okay, fine. I took your ear and made it into a trophy, so go ahead, take my ear back to your clan and preserve it. Spend the rest of your life passing it around the campfire and telling them all how you killed the mighty goblin slayer. Tell the story of this battle to your children's children . . . A hundred years from now, your descendants will tell ghost stories about me. The ear in your hand will be a priceless relic. The tale of how Thaco finally killed his archnemesis will spread from clan to clan as--

    Thaco: You're not my nemesis.

    Dellyn: What?

    Thaco: You're not my nemesis, this battle is not story worthy, and this *throws the ear over his shoulder* is no trophy.

    Dellyn: I am captain Dellyn Goblinslayer, the savior of--

    Thaco: You're some human that I fought in the early levels of my adventuring career. You're a random encounter, and you're not worth the XP I'd get for killing you.

    *Thaco turns and walks away*

    Dellyn: Thaco! Thacoooo! I am the greatest adventurer this world has ever seen! Killing me is the dream of ever goblin in this realm! I am a legend! Thaco! No! Please!
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    As an aside, I love OOTS.

    To the point: I think the suggestions above are all good ones, and the only observation I want to add is that you may also look at the extent of explanation you have now, and whether it is all necessary. And does it make sense that the villain is going to humor the protagonist by engaging in some kind of extended justification or explanation of what is going on?
     
  19. Tirjasdyn

    Tirjasdyn Scribe

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    I think that exposition and action working together is the best way to go but it can also be done extremely wrong. GoT was already used as an example, such as the Tywin butchering scene but in that same series they have done horribly. Having women having sex in the background while people talk is one. The action needs to have a much meaning as the speech.
     
  20. soggymuse

    soggymuse Dreamer

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    It doesn't have to be tea, but you could use the scene as an opportunity to worldbuild at the same time. Show some of the culture around them, especially if it's not set in the real world. For instance (and bearing in mind I haven't done detailed research so I may be wrong on the finer points), tea-making in some cultures is an art form intended to honour participants. The tea-maker has to follow an elaborate ritual where they pour the hot water over the teapot repeatedly, steep the tea leaves for x amount of time, etc. If you were to use the tea-making to frame the villain's monologue, you could use that framework to show how deep the culture goes. Is tea-making something you only do for friends? Is the villain trying to use this simple courtesy to persuade the other character to her side? Is the other character suspicious because tea is routinely used to assassinate people?

    That's especially handy if you do utilise your villain's flower background as well. Mix them up, maybe? Like, she makes the tea, the character drinks the tea, and then the villain gets up to faff around with some flowers and pointedly mentions that they're poisonous - and, oh dear, the good character has just drunk the tea, maybe it was poisoned. Even though it's probably not (if your villain is trying to sway your good guy to her side), she's still making a point that she could have poisoned them but didn't; see, she's really just a good guy after all...

    As an aside regarding GOT's sex scenes... I can't say I particularly like them (as much as I enjoy the show, all the graphic stuff really puts me off), I can kind of see how they might be thinking how the sex scenes would frame the exposition. Like, obviously they're thinking "sex sells", but I also feel like they're using it to show character background and culture. I haven't read the books so I can't compare, but the TV show makes Westeros a land where women are pawns and property. There's nothing to highlight that fact quite so well as putting naked women in the background of a discussion about war. It's a very crude way of shocking the audience into realising the gap between not only the common people (the prostitutes, etc) and the nobility, but also between life (sex) and death (war).
     
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